Sunday, May 12, 2013

"That all may be one"

Text: John 17 20-26 ("that all may be one")

"That all may be one" -- with these words from the Gospel of John in its heart and on its crest, the United Church of Canada came into being 88 years ago on June 10th, 1925. Because of this fact and because next Sunday is Pentecost, which is a celebration of the founding of the universal church, my sermons today and next week are about the state of the church and efforts to achieve church unity.

I am inspired not only by today's Gospel reading and Pentecost, but also by the Chinook Presbytery meeting, which Carla and I attended in Moose Jaw yesterday and Friday. The meeting included a workshop on "How to be church in our changing context," which I found interesting and useful.

Originally, I had thought I would weave the details of the Moose Jaw discussions into this sermon. But last night, I was too tired to tackle this. So today's sermons is a reworking of one I gave when I was student minister three years ago in Alberta.  More about Moose Jaw next time . . .

The Gospel passage from John contains the last words of Jesus to his disciples before his arrest and execution. In this parting message, Jesus urges his followers towards unity. But what kind of unity is meant by the phrase "that all may be one?"

Perhaps Jesus means a kind of mystical union. Listen to his words again: "as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . . so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." These convoluted phrases remind me of St. Paul when he writes about the inner Christ.

However, Jesus' phrase "that all may be one" has usually been interpreted the way that the United Church does: as a call for church unity. Jesus' prayer is for all the followers of the Way of  the Cross to form One Body.

In the first 300 years after Jesus, such unity was not easy. The church was small and far-flung. It existed in house gatherings all around the Mediterranean. Travel and communication were difficult and slow. There were no printing presses, so Christian sacred writings such as the  letters of Paul and the gospel narratives were shared as hand-made copies. In this situation, there was not just one brand of Christianity. There were scores or hundreds of different kinds of Christianities.

All of this changed in the 300's when the Roman Empire exchanged its old pagan cults and adopted Christianity as the official religion. By the year 400, all the many strange and diverse types of churches had been unified into one official brand --  Roman Catholicism. It had a common creed, an agreed-upon list of books for the Bible, and a common way of running each congregation. Any writings, creeds and practices that didn't fit with what the Emperor and his councils decided upon were ruthlessly suppressed by the state.

This top-down approach created Christian unity. But I am sure that this was not the unity for which Jesus prayed on the night of his arrest since it was enforced by violence; and the enforcer was the same Roman Empire that arrested Jesus on the night of his prayer and executed him as a political prisoner the next day.

Still, the church was unified. And when the Roman Empire disintegrated under barbarian attacks in the 400's, the Catholic Church was a key institution that kept Europe somewhat united during the Dark Ages.

Around the year 1000, the church split into a Greek Orthodox wing, centred in what is now Turkey, and a Catholic wing centred in Rome. After that split, uniformity was maintained for another 500 years in two different flavours: a Latin flavour in the Catholic West of Europe and a Greek flavour in the Orthodox East.

All of this changed as European powers began their conquest of the world in the 1500s. The Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin in France and Switzerland, King Henry VIII in England, and John Knox in Scotland shattered Christian unity. The rage to create new denominations, which continues to this day, began.

Its not that we oppose the Reformation, of course. By the year 1500, the Church in Western Europe had grown tired and corrupt. The reforms introduced in the new denominations of Lutheranism, Anabaptism, Presbyterianism, and Anglicanism, and also within the Roman Catholic church itself in the Counter-Reformation, had many positive results.

Christianity became the world's dominant religion after European colonization of the Americas, Africa and Asia. It also split into scores of different denominations.

The diversity of Christianity in the first decades after Jesus had come naturally. It flowed from  smallness, poverty, and the difficulties in travel and communication. Although Christian teaching called us towards unity, the social situation did not make such unity possible.

By the time of Jesus, most of the world had finally been inhabited by humans. There were only a few islands in the Pacific Ocean like Hawaii that had not yet been reached by humans. But at that time, people in the Roman Empire did not know of the existence of the Americas; people in the Americas did not know of the existence of Africa; and people in sub-Saharan Africa did not know of the existence of Asia. Christians might wish for human unity under God, but the human race was still developing in isolated pockets on different continents.

European conquest after 1500 changed all this. European powers united all of humanity through war and conquest. Since then, we have lived in a world with one economy. This is the context in which we pray for church unity today.

By the end of the 19th Century, the pendulum among Protestants was swinging back towards unity. And the strongest expression of this movement was right here in Canada. When the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches joined to form the United Church of Canada in 1925 it was the first, the most hopeful and the most influential church union of its day.

Not that there aren't difficulties in church unity. Different churches have different traditions, different ideas on key issues, and different missions. United Church history of the past 88 years shows us many of the problems.

Despite the difficulties, modern attempts at church unity show greater promise than the original unity created by the Roman Empire, I think, because they are about unity from below and not from above.

19th Century "union churches" in Canada's West provide an example. In many small farming communities in what is now Saskatchewan and Alberta, settlers came from different denominations. But they didn't always have the resources or the desire to create more than one church. So a "union church" phenomenon grew up here.

These union churches in the West proved in practice that Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican or Baptist Christians could successfully worship and work together. This practical experience of small union churches in the West encouraged the more established Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist churches in Eastern Canada to move from talking about unity to actually achieving it.

Today our world needs greater unity to tackle economic, environmental, and security problems. But there are legitimate fears about trying to create unity from above based upon the history of attempts to control the whole world through military force as with Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Perhaps it is those of us who modestly try to follow Jesus' path of faith, hope and love in churches big and small that offer a better model. As members of the Body of Christ we worship and work together despite many differences. God's Spirit grants us the Grace to know God's love for us. On this basis we are able to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Of course, the church in Canada faces big problems today. As last week's Canadian census results showed, all churches continue to shrink in size. The number of Canadians with no religious affiliation continues to grow. Young people are increasingly unlikely to seek spiritual fulfilment in a church. These realities formed the backdrop to our discussions in Moose Jaw on Friday and Saturday.

Nevertheless, I see spiritual possibilities in the church's struggles. As with the union churches in the West 100 years ago, perhaps we can find new life for worshipping and working together in small towns and so also help people in larger centres to also find a new path towards the unity for which Jesus prayed.

Perhaps it is in Spirit-led churches that a unity that is truly diverse, democratic, and post-denominational can best be imagined. I will explore these ideas further on Pentecost next Sunday . . .

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed that the love with which God the Father loved him may be in us and that he be in us as well.

With God's grace, may we continue to know and experience this deep reality of union with Christ and with God's Love and so be inspired to seek a human unity that respects diversity and seeks peace with justice.

Thanks be to God.


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